In this short guide, we discuss five top tips for firms when supervising trainees and junior practitioners who work remotely during all or part of the week.
Remote supervision is a topic of great interest to regulators and professional bodies within the sector. For example, the Law Society has recently published updated guidance on good practice for the remote supervision of junior staff and trainee solicitors.
Covid-19 measures, which formed the basis for many remote working arrangements, are subsiding. However, many firms have not insisted on a full-scale return to the office five days a week. While the benefits of flexibility are many, firms should take care to minimise the accompanying costs and risks, as the Law Society’s guidance makes clear.
Our five top tips are:
- Keep the regulatory requirements in mind
- Out of sight – but not out of mind
- Strike the right balance
- Learn to spot potential health, safety and wellbeing issues early
- Ensure confidentiality and IT security don’t suffer
1. Keep the regulatory requirements in mind
Although excellent service to clients will be paramount for all professional services firms, regulators also hold clear expectations about the training and development of junior staff in particular. The SRA, for example, requires firms to satisfy themselves that they have appropriate and adequate measures in place to ensure that they can effectively supervise their trainee and junior solicitors.
Conversely, the regulator has recently re-iterated its commitment to being “as flexible as possible” when it comes to training and assessments in light of the pandemic.
Firms should bear in mind their obligations in this regard, including:
- the need for effective systems and controls, including those which ensure that employees comply with applicable regulatory obligations on both them and the firm
- keeping an effective system for supervising clients’ matters whilst remaining accountable for compliance with regulations when delegating work to junior staff, trainees and external contractors
- ensuring that the service provided to clients is competent and delivered in a timely manner
- taking measures to ensure that client information is kept strictly confidential
- keeping the professional knowledge, experience and skills of all staff up to date.
We discuss below how these obligations might be fulfilled in practice in the context of remote working.
2. Out of sight – but not out of mind
In the absence of a more traditional means of supervision – such as manuscript mark-ups and in-person feedback meetings – partners and other supervisors may need to be more creative in finding ways to provide adequate supervision and training.
Certainly, the lack of an employee’s physical presence in the office should not be an excuse for ignoring their training and development needs. The Law Society’s guidance states that remote supervision can be given in various ways such as phone calls, video meetings and emails.
Direct verbal communication can certainly be quicker and more effective way to oversee the work of a junior. The guidance reminds firms of the benefits of arrangements where junior staff can regularly communicate with their supervisors, such as:
- detecting nuance
- being able to address concerns immediately
- creating solutions together.
Although it will vary depending on the individual being supervised, the supervisor will need to ensure that they make time for more informal communications to take place as these enable queries or issues to be raised more easily.
Firms are warned that the provision of feedback should not be adversely affected by remote working. For example, regular catchups with a supervisor or as a team should be arranged in order to gauge the workload and development needs of the supervisee. This would also provide an additional benefit of better integrating the team as a whole. An open and communicative culture should be maintained so that any training or development issues do not have to wait for more formal feedback opportunities. Written feedback can also be useful where it can be used as part of regular reviews.
In many firms, particularly pre-pandemic, trainees would often be sat in close physical proximity to a senior lawyer within the office. As firms adapt to hybrid working policies, supervisors should consider how to replicate the benefits of working in close proximity to junior staff. For example, technology that enables a supervisor and supervisee to draft a document together on separate screens could be put to good use.
Alternatively, when new work is assigned, scheduling a quick call to discuss what is required, check the trainee’s understanding and address any questions or issues at the outset would assist with the effective delivery of the work. It would also minimise the risk of misunderstandings around the instructions given, which could otherwise lead to wasted time and cost.
3. Strike the right balance
Firms should be careful to strike the right balance between enabling all staff the same opportunities to work remotely and providing the developmental advantages of junior staff spending time working in an office environment. For example, junior staff – and perhaps recent hires – could be expected to attend the office more frequently than their more senior colleagues.
Although good supervision can be attained without regular in-person contact, it is worth considering that some overlap between a supervisor and supervisee in the office could allow more informal, ad hoc communications and supervision and feedback meetings. It also provides junior staff with more opportunities to observe and, in turn, improve their knowledge, client care skills and experience. Office overlaps also increase the more casual and spontaneous opportunities for learning, such as taking part in client meetings.
Where members of a team work together, it may be beneficial to arrange in-person team meetings or events. ‘Anchor days’, where attendance in the office is mandatory, are becoming more common. Video calls can also provide a good opportunity to optimise real-time interactions, and they can offer invaluable ‘face time’ with senior lawyers and clients. To better enable this, staff should be encouraged to keep their cameras switched on when using video calls.
Regardless of what arrangements apply, firms should be clear in setting out what is expected of all their workforce. Clear expectations around working hours should be set, with senior staff being seen to model any and all expected behaviours, whilst avoiding making unreasonable demands on junior staff outside of the firm’s agreed arrangements.
Working patterns that exist in the physical office, such as lunch or other regular breaks, should be mirrored where possible when working remotely, especially when it comes to the allocation of work or the scheduling of meetings. Email etiquette can also act as a means of setting expectations. This could be as simple as marking an email subject as ‘non-urgent’, where that is the case.
4. Learn to spot potential health, safety and wellbeing issues early
The COVID-19 pandemic encouraged a greater consideration of employees’ wellbeing. Regulators have already begun to underline their own expectations about staff wellbeing, as we discussed in our previous article here.
All staff, in particular those who are more junior, should be given regular opportunities to check in with their supervisors.
When supervising trainees remotely, firms should be mindful that wellbeing issues may be harder to spot or tackle. For example, time could be made at the start or end of one-to-one calls or meetings to deal with non-client issues of any description. Firms should promote an atmosphere where staff feel comfortable approaching supervisors with problems.
Alternatively, meetings could be held by a trained mental health officer who is available to offer confidential help to staff who are struggling but are uncomfortable speaking to their supervisor.
5. Ensure confidentiality and IT security don’t suffer
Most firms will find that more remote working means more risk around confidentiality and data protection breaches and IT security threat.
The period before the pandemic had its fair share of stories of laptops and sensitive documents having been left on trains or otherwise falling into the wrong hands. Now that frequent remote working is the norm, extra measures may be justified for many firms.
Firms might consider:
- implementing a specific information security policy for homeworking
- limiting the ability of employees and partners to remove hard copy documents from the office
- additional security measures for accessing devices such as laptops and phones
- policy terms which restrict working on unsecure networks or in public places where confidential information in documents or on laptop screens can be seen by others
- restrictions on the use of personal devices, other than where strictly necessary.
Contact us If you have any questions about these issues in relation to your own organisation, please contact a member of the professional services team or speak to your usual Fox Williams contact.